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Toronto mayor wants police to direct traffic at busy intersections

Rush hour traffic on Spadina Avenue in Toronto.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to have police officers manage the traffic flow at the city's worst intersections, part of his latest package of congestion-tackling measures.

The mayor went to Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue – identified by city data as one of the most congested crossings in the city – to give a taste of new proposals to be rolled out gradually.

A pilot to upgrade "smart" traffic signals will happen in about a year. Throughout 2016 will come plans to enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety and also dedicated policies for each of the 10 busiest intersections. The most visible aspect of the plan will see police facilitate traffic at busy intersections – a shift expected soon.

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"I would hope it's going to be weeks," Mr. Tory told reporters. "[The public] will see officers in some of those troubled intersections, more of which are downtown, directing traffic and actually clearing up some of these bottlenecks."

These would be officers working overtime, the mayor's staff said, instead of taking police off active duty. Mr. Tory pegged the cost of the pilot project in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There were no specific benchmarks against which to measure the success of this or any of the other proposals, most of which will take some time to put into action. Others include developing better ways to manage commercial vehicle use of curb-side space, trying out upgraded "smart" traffic signals and expanding the Smart Commute program that encourages people to change their travel habits.

Mr. Tory has made fighting traffic a cornerstone of his mayoralty. He has worked to portray himself as sympathetic to the plight of drivers, including using the threat of traffic delays as a reason to fight for keeping the eastern portion of the Gardiner as an elevated expressway. There have also been improvements to transit during his term, though critics say he has put too much emphasis on reducing car traffic.

"I think it's more important that we spend for impact than that we spend to appeal to people's sense of frustration," said Councillor Gord Perks, arguing that congestion is "a consequence" of economic success that is seen in every desirable city. "We should be thinking in terms of using the infrastructure we have efficiently … for public transit and cycling, rather than trying to move [more] cars through."

One year into his mayoralty, it remains unclear what effects Mr. Tory's traffic tactics are having.

A lack a data has bedevilled his earlier congestion-fighting ideas. A push last year to crack down on illegal parkers resulted in thousands of vehicles being towed, but the effect on traffic remains unknown. A Globe and Mail analysis of several key routes, using TomTom data, found no evidence to support anecdotal accounts of major time savings.

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The mayor argued Wednesday that there are too many variables, including weather and special events, to make gauging effects of his traffic measures a matter of comparing data. Common sense and anecdotal evidence have to be included as well, he said.

"Data is important … but it isn't by itself enough," Mr. Tory said. "I've heard positive reports everywhere I go … it's powerful and repeated and continuous anecdotal evidence I have from drivers."

Transportation officials at the city are keenly aware of the need to get the most reliable data possible, particularly on the traffic impacts at the targeted intersections. That will probably involve tapping Bluetooth data, though Mr. Tory said it could be as crude as having staff stationed at the crossings, counting vehicles and surveying drivers' experiences.

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